Congratulations, law student, on your smart decision to take the introductory course exploring
the U.S. Federal income taxation of individuals! Nervous? Don’t be. I want to take some time to
dispel several misapprehensions about the study and practice of tax law.
Some law students believe that tax lawyers spend their time filling out annual income tax
returns. Even John Grisham—a lawyer (though not a tax lawyer) before becoming a novelist—
wrote the following opening paragraph in Chapter 29 of his novel The Firm, the hero of which was
(wait for it) a tax lawyer.
A week before April 15, the workaholics at Bendini, Lambert & Locke [a boutique
tax firm] reached maximum stress and ran at full throttle on nothing but adrenaline.
And fear. Fear of missing a deduction or a write-off or some extra depreciation that
would cost a rich client an extra million or so. Fear of picking up the phone and
calling the client and informing him that the return was now finished and, sorry to
say, an extra eight hundred thousand was due. Fear of not finishing by the fifteenth
and being forced to file extensions and incurring penalties and interest. The parking
lot was full by 6 a.m. The secretaries worked twelve hours a day. Tempers were
short. Talk was scarce and hurried.1
A good read—but an absolutely ridiculous description of tax law practice! How boring that
would be. The only annual tax return I have ever completed is my own, and I know some tax
lawyers who do not even do that. While some tax lawyers (particularly in smaller firms) may
complete annual tax returns for their clients as an ancillary service to them, most tax lawyers in
law firms (and tax lawyers providing tax consulting services in accounting firms, as opposed to
compliance services) typically are transactional lawyers who advise clients in structuring
transactions in a tax-efficient manner—whether the “transaction” is a personal one, such as a
divorce, or a business one, such as a corporate merger. Tax practice is, therefore, forward-looking
and can be very creative. Other tax lawyers work in resolving tax disputes between taxpayers and
the Federal government, first through Internal Revenue Service (IRS) internal appeals processes
and second, if necessary, through litigation.
In addition, some students worry that they will be at a significant disadvantage in this course if
they believe themselves to be bad at math (or “maths,” as my British friends say) or if they never
took accounting or business classes as an undergraduate. Balderdash! My undergraduate major
was Psychology, and I was a Registered Nurse in Maternity Surgery for seven years, as well. Yet,
I practiced tax law with the Wall Street firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. (I would have laughed out
loud if anyone had told me on the first day of law school that I would become a tax lawyer, but I
took my first tax law class and was hooked.) Moreover, I am living proof that you need not be a
math whiz to be a tax lawyer. While simple math (such as addition, subtraction, multiplication,
and division) is often necessary to illustrate the underlying principle at stake, tax law is actually a
deeply conceptual body of law based on primary principles surrounding the meaning of the word
“income” for tax purposes. Tax law practice is not financial accounting and has little to do with
“generally accepted accounting principles.” Indeed, what makes perfect sense in creating an
1 JOHN GRISHAM , THE FIRM 363 (Dell Publishing paperback ed. 1991).